The Glass Collectorby Anna Perera
Fifteen-year-old Aaron lives amongst the rubbish piles in the slums of Cairo. His job? To collect broken glass. His life? Wasted. His hope? To find a future he can believe in. Today in Cairo, Egypt, there is a city within a city: a city filled with garbage--literally. As one of the Zabbaleen people, Aaron makes his living sorting through waste. When his family
Fifteen-year-old Aaron lives amongst the rubbish piles in the slums of Cairo. His job? To collect broken glass. His life? Wasted. His hope? To find a future he can believe in. Today in Cairo, Egypt, there is a city within a city: a city filled with garbage--literally. As one of the Zabbaleen people, Aaron makes his living sorting through waste. When his family kicks him out, his only alternatives are to steal, beg, or take the most nightmarish garbage-collecting job of all.
"Perera takes teen readers into a new world in this often-eloquent novel....A novel of hope and redemption in the most unlikely of settings." Kirkus Reviews
"The imagery is powerful, and the depiction of urban squalor is chilling." The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"A strong narrative voice captures multiple viewpoints of the 'Zabbaleen,' Coptic Christian citizens of Cairo's 'Garbage City'....Perera draws a vivid portrait of the community's squalid living conditions....A powerful rendering of human struggle, resilience, and hope." Publishers Weekly
The New York Times Book Review
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The Glass Collector
By Anna Perera
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2011 Anna Perera
All rights reserved.
"Cairo treats the dead better than the living."
Aaron is overwhelmed by the truth of what the man says as he pushes past. The words roll into him in a blind-person-seeing kind of way, because the stranger in the dark suit is right—the mummies and old bones in the Egyptian Museum are better cared for than he is. Inside there are plush rooms with air conditioning and marble floors for the sacred dead, while the despised Zabbaleen people are treated like the lowest of the low, left to live like pigs, scrabbling through the city streets for garbage to recycle.
Aaron walks slowly and painfully, trying hard to take the weight off his left knee, which is throbbing badly after a fall this morning from the pony and cart. The toe he jabbed and the elbow he bashed when he landed on the hot, potholed road hurt almost as badly and, for one awful moment, he thinks he'll just sink down on the pavement and give up.
He stops beside a stall selling King Tut replicas and papyrus pictures of blue flying birds, and stretches his leg, which eases the pain a little. If Aaron has broken a bone it'll be too bad. When he gets home the best he can hope for is to sleep despite the pain, because the health clinic isn't open every day. When it's closed the Zabbaleen have to visit the hospital, and Aaron won't go there after hearing his best friend Jacob's stories about patients dying from little things like a nosebleed or an ingrown toenail.
"And sometimes the doctors take one of your kidneys without you knowing," Jacob once told him.
Aaron has no idea where his kidneys are. Are they at the front or the back of his body? Through his dirty green shirt he presses down on the sponges of skin on either side of his navel but finds only soft flesh and a tender spot that wasn't there before. Another bruise from this morning, he decides, as it sparks the old ones to life and his whole body begins to throb more than ever.
He checks for the industrial-strength plastic bag that's safely tucked under his arm, then straightens his back and sighs. If he doesn't get on with clearing the last alley, which is still more than fifteen minutes' walk away at this slow pace, he'll have to find his own way home because his stepbrother Lijah can't be bothered to hang around for him.
With a grubby hand, he wipes hot tears from his face and makes a silent promise to get even. Lijah—the creep, the bully.
What did he say to make his stepbrother shove him off the cart and into the path of a passing car this morning, almost killing him? If it hadn't been for the quick reactions of the man in the silver BMW, he'd be dead now.
"You all right?" The man had slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car to stand over Aaron, who was already on his feet by that time.
Aaron's insides shake at the memory. The man had a nervous face—the vein in his forehead was sticking out and he kept glancing at his jewelled gold watch. He was rich and Aaron regrets leaping up from the road so quickly. He should have stayed where he was, pretended to be hurt, and asked for fifty piastres—at least. Instead he took to his heels to catch up with Lijah, who was ages away by then, not caring if he was dead or alive.
Aaron hadn't noticed the trouble with his knee at first. It was only when he tried to climb back on the cart that it started aching, and his toe began to throb and the pain in his elbow kicked in. All the while Lijah was staring ahead, as if nothing had happened. He was squinting at the road with his hard insect eyes, and when Aaron finally turned to face him Lijah said, "Keep your mouth shut or I'll kill you."
But Aaron wasn't worried by the idle threat. When Lijah was really angry his eyes popped out like bubbles. Only then was it time to run.
Jacob had once said, "The trouble with Lijah is he never dreams."
Aaron sort of knew what his friend meant and had agreed, saying, "Yeah, he's useless." It made sense that Lijah was stupid because he didn't have an imagination.
"He has got a bit of a brain, though," Jacob went on, backtracking, cushioning his comment.
"But it's up his backside," Aaron told him, "so it doesn't count."
Aaron smiles at the memory of Jacob laughing, his Adam's apple jackhammering in his throat. At least his friend understood something of what he was going through, of how tough life could be. These people around him on the streets of Cairo now, they have no idea.
Aaron glances at the sky to catch his breath. The closer he gets to the main road, the more it seems as if every car horn in the city is honking at once and the curling exhaust fumes are out to gas him to death. A blue tourist coach, with the pyramids of Giza painted on the side, moves alongside him as he limps past a burger bar, and when he looks up he sees a middle-aged woman staring down at him. She eyes him with a cool expression and he knows what she's thinking. He's seen that look a million times before. She's wondering if he's an innocent street kid or a homeless refugee, ex-mental patient, or some other kind of reject.
She probably thinks he's stupid and can't read or add. She doesn't know that there's a primary school in
Mokattam, where he lives, and that the clever kids can continue with their education elsewhere while the rest have to leave at the age of eleven to collect and recycle waste. She doesn't know Aaron wanted to stay on but had to help his mother instead.
Aaron stares back at the woman—at the slow way she flicks her fair hair behind her ears. He stops dead in his tracks to watch the coach overtake him.
"I know who you are, lady, but you don't know anything about me," he mutters.
The coach pushes on and Aaron starts limping again as a sudden burst of exhaust fumes intensifies the feeling that his knee is about to give way.
This part of the city is always busy and, when he finally reaches the main road, he heads for the only safe spot to cross, which is a distance from the backed-up cars queuing to get on the ramp. Aaron gazes at the road as the traffic echoes around him. He could be standing on a thousand streets in Cairo, with the same four lanes of taxis, cars, and buses hurrying to nowhere, the same blank faces between him and the dark alley opposite. He checks that the plastic bag is still under his arm and the sudden movement aggravates the pain in his elbow.
He screws up his face in agony. But at least the bag's still there. A couple of weeks ago he'd dropped it without noticing and Hosi, his stepfather, went crazy when he came home with one less bag of garbage.
"Those bags cost money, you idiot," he yelled.
"Someone stole it from me," Aaron tried to explain. But it was no use; Hosi screamed anyway.
Staring out at the dirty traffic, Aaron's fury moves from the picture in his head of Hosi yelling, to the cars, then to the businessman beside him, who's puffing on a cigarette and tapping his scuffed-up leather shoes. Maybe he should pick another place to cross the street. By now Lijah has probably given up and gone back to Mokattam without him. While part of Aaron hopes Lijah will turn up, another part is too tired and in too much pain to care anymore.
Aaron turns his attention to the crowd gathering behind him. Emerald-green light shimmers off their dark clothes, sequins reflecting in the sun's rays. It's normal in Cairo— this city of magic and ancient mysteries—for rich and poor to stand side by side, to share the same doorways and buildings, the same streets, without ever really seeing each other. The congestion is building and Aaron's thin body aches with the impulse to hit out at something. Something big. Something that looks and feels like Lijah would be great. What would the priest back in Mokattam say to that, Aaron wonders. Say a prayer? Ask for forgiveness?
He turns to look at a woman in a blue headscarf. She's smiling down at her little boy as if she loves him more than anything in the world. As if he's the only kid who was ever born. The little boy clutches his mother's hand tightly. Aaron's mind travels back to when he was younger, because the woman looks a bit like his mother. Except she's dressed in a new galabeya, while his mother wore dirty rags every day of her life but one.
The woman smiles and Aaron is suddenly floored by the memory of the day his mother married nasty Hosi. For a second he brings up the picture of her wedding day—the only time she was able to rent a pretty dress. It was cream with lace at the hem and gold edging, and she looked like someone else in it. Someone he didn't know. Someone younger. It was hard to look away from her in that dress, dancing and smiling at Hosi, white ribbons swinging from her hair to her eyes. Aaron saw clearly then that she loved her new husband more than she loved him, her own son. That was the day she ruined his life. And when she died she left Aaron with a stone in his heart. A stone he's kept hard by returning to the picture of her on her wedding day, again and again.
But now she's dead, and he's stuck with Hosi and two stepbrothers. Stuck with a family he hates and it's all her fault. Lijah's her fault.
Lijah. How Aaron detests that name.
The sun burns into Aaron as if on purpose. Deliberately hurting him while he still waits for a gap in the traffic. The businessman steps on his cigarette and pats sweat from his neck, while the woman runs a red-nailed hand through her son's hair, pulling him closer to her.
The crowd pulses with irritation.
Everyone stops breathing for a moment when a black- and-white taxi screeches to a halt behind a yellow bus, but the gap's not big enough for anyone to get through. Come on. There's just one more alley to clear, if he can reach it. Another filthy alley in a city of tourists and people who'll never know him or how and where he lives. Yet Aaron has touched their dead skin cells on sauce bottles, tins, and old socks. He's wiped lipstick prints off wine glasses and tried on their old shoes. He can imagine their whole lives from the way they crush white plastic cups until they crack and split.
Sometimes he can feel them. Feel their breath on his neck.
Close by, the traffic on the ramp has come to a complete stop. Automatically, Aaron reaches to check for the folded bag under his arm again, then glances at the tall hotel on the opposite side of the road. With its plain brown windows and discreet entrance, it radiates peace and quiet. He's never been through the dark revolving glass doors, and he probably never will, but the sight of them cools him for a moment as he imagines the air conditioning inside.
Aaron rubs the sting of exhaust fumes from his eyes—then blinks. Instantly his life stops. He blinks again, hardly believing what he sees. What is that? That—something—a woman—flashing on the hotel doors? A beautiful face on the dark glass, lighting up, then moving, now staring out at him. It's making him feel as if he's being lifted from his body and taken to heaven.
The traffic disappears as separate pieces—a face, a wing, a headscarf—float past him with a power so strong he can't look away. It's her, Mary, and it feels as if she's wrapping her arms around him as he gazes in awe at her soft face. But he knows that hotel well. He knows those dark swinging glass doors. There's nothing etched on the glass. No marks. Nothing. But her ghostly face floats from the door again and a powerful feeling that she's real, she exists, she's part of this life, part of him, overtakes Aaron and he falters.
The Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven, is here in Cairo, on the glass doors of the Imperial Hotel.
And only he knows.
How can he explain what he's seeing? Who would believe him? He hardly believes it himself, and at the same time he also knows he's seeing something that doesn't really exist. Maybe the pain is affecting his mind. He never thought she was real—just a story, an old story—until now. Shocked and confused, he thinks it's as if another version of himself is looking at a different world. A world that's changing shape right in front of his eyes. Her appearance must be a message. But what? And why him? He's nobody. He doesn't go to church. He never listens to the priest. Being constantly told what to believe, how to live, who to follow—all that gets on his nerves.
A shrieking truck shoots by, blocking his sight for a second. The sudden draught shaves his sore knee and he steps back, forcing his bare feet against the edge of the pavement. Aaron tries to make the vision disappear from his mind. Go away! It scares him.
He ignores the strange appearance of Mary by looking down at the oil-stained pavement. When he dares to glance back at the doors, expecting her face to have gone, he's shocked to see she's still there, staring out at him. Something—and it feels soft—just touched his heart. Even the sight of his ugly feet and the pockmarked pavement can't rub out the gentleness of her face. It just can't. The same feeling of being lifted from his body and taken far away returns, but stronger than before. Almost as odd is the sudden pang of hunger that gurgles a strange "yes" to what his eyes are telling him. And, when Aaron looks back at the doors, the beautiful, bright lights are even more amazing than he first thought. She's more perfect than ever.
Somewhere at the back of his mind are a thousand pictures just like the one he's gazing at: paintings, drawings, postcards, mosaics, statues, and carvings all exactly like this.
Beautiful, strong, and powerful pictures of the Virgin Mary with her head to one side. They're everywhere and always she looks lovingly down, leaning gently, a scarf falling from her head to the sleeping baby in her arms. Staring at her, Aaron forgets his aches and pains.
For the first time since his mother died, Aaron feels loved, special, chosen.CHAPTER 2
Through Aaron's head flash the Nile, the Four Seasons, the Sheraton, the Marriott, the Hyatt—the poshest, most expensive hotels in Cairo. Surely those hotels are the right places for miracles to occur, not the silly old Imperial, which is only a three-star, and without any concrete security barriers or sniffing dogs to check for bombs. You can't even see the River Nile from there.
Aaron is aware of a feverish feeling that makes itself known by covering him in a prickly sweat. It's as if the sun's rays have reduced him to an unbearable-to-touch mass of flickering cinders. He turns slowly and looks at the crowd waiting to cross the road: women, children, businessmen. They wait with glazed, anxious faces. Sunken eyes. Nobody's staring at the vision on the opposite side of the road. No one can see it except him. The Virgin Mary is gazing straight at Aaron as if she's waiting for him, him alone, and it feels as if a thousand heavens are opening their golden gates. Just for him. But now and then, when something special comes to you, it's hard to believe it's really meant for you ... Only saints see angels and God and Mary. Don't they? Is she showing him the light or telling him off because he has decided to get Lijah back once and for all? Or perhaps this vision is a sign to keep going because the world is coming to an end, which it will any day soon, according to Lijah.
Aaron trembles. The sounds of the city echo around him. The sun, sky, people, cars, buses, and taxis change shape as he gazes at her face. The filthy gutter beneath his feet is still there. Nothing's really changed but everything feels different. Less solid. Less real. Lighter. And when he looks at the hotel doors the outline of her form, painted in pastel lights, is the most beautiful thing he's ever seen, and it feels as if she's welcoming him as the colors change from pale yellow to a lost, un-pin-down-able red.
"Why?" Aaron whispers. Why has the Mother of God come to me—a Zabbaleen whom everyone hates? No one will believe me. Miracles don't really happen, do they?
He wants to point and scream, but he's a Zabbaleen and if he makes a fuss the police might come and carry him off. He knows the women in their headscarves behind him and the businessmen and the children and that old lady with the big yellow teeth and the tourists won't understand that what he's just seen is real.
As the molten cars screech past, the small flame inside him grows. He's in a strange state of happiness and no longer feels like himself, or a Zabbaleen. But is Mary, Mother of God, trying to tell him to be a better person and pray more? Well, that won't work, because Aaron never prays, but still he itches for the chance to run to her, though now there's too much traffic in the way. Then, when he glances again—no—she's gone. The world turns solid and dull. The colors have disappeared. Where? How can that be? Maybe Mary didn't want anyone else to see her?
Excerpted from The Glass Collector by Anna Perera. Copyright © 2011 Anna Perera. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Anna Perera was born in London to an Irish mother and a Sri Lankan father. She worked as an English teacher in two secondary schools in London, and later became responsible for a unit for boys excluded from mainstream schools. She lives in Hampshire, England. Her first young adult novel was Guantanamo Boy. www.annaperera.com
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